Monday, September 20, 2010

The Detroit Symphony and the 'top-down' community

By Barry Johnson

The symphony orchestra world is rightly following and thinking about the striking Detroit Symphony musicians, who are fighting a 30 percent reduction in their salaries as well as substantial changes to the rules that govern how and when they work. A story by Mark Stryker in the Detroit Free Press Sunday adds considerably to the discussion, mostly by giving it a different frame from the usual labor-management dispute. 

Unfortunately, he doesn't take his thinking about the symphony quite far enough. Or maybe symphony management itself (from whose viewpoint most of the story was written) hasn't done enough thinking.  An orchestra as a "community of musicians," in the construction of the late Ernest Fleischmann quoted by Stryker, may sound like a good idea, but an undemocratic, top-down management system that imposes duties and obligations on the musicians without their central participation in the process is not.

The story begins with the Fleischmann quote: "The orchestra is dead. Long live the community of musicians." And then it sets out to show how orchestra management in Detroit wants to use Fleischmann's ideas. These include using orchestra musicians in many capacities -- as educators and chamber musicians, say, in addition to their work in the full-scale orchestra. I have argued for a similar approach myself, and well before me so did Fleischmann, who turned the LA Philharmonic into a major musical and community institution during his long tenure as executive director.

Stryker goes a long way toward explaining why this has never come about, a cluster of things from audience expectation (which he does not mention) to union work rules to management inertia and instability. Even better, he talks about the experience at the small Memphis Symphony ($4 million annual budget, less than 1/3 the size of the Oregon Symphony, 1/7 the size of the Detroit Symphony) , which allows its musicians to opt-in to an additional four weeks of work a year in addition to the mainline symphony system. They teach, mentor younger musicians, run their own concert series, even do music therapy, produce radio programs and work on the orchestra's website. Stryker says 85 percent of Memphis musicians participate.

The implication is that the musicians and orchestra staff are engaged in an ongoing exploration of how best to deploy the resources of the orchestra.  Fair enough. But getting to that point in Detroit sounds much more difficult. Here's the key quote from Stryker's story:
"DSO president Anne Parsons says that the orchestra has a large menu of artistic, education and community program ideas -- some of which have already attracted the interest of funders -- that are too expensive to initiate without a new contract. They include a chamber music series in collaboration with a community partner, contemporary music concerts, extensive in-school mentoring and adding chamber music to this season's Beethoven festival."
The "orchestra has a large menu." But that presumably does not include the musicians -- who ARE the orchestra. If a load of new responsibilities was about to land on my plate without my consultation, I'd resist, too, even if I thought they might be critical to the success of the organizations. That sort of change takes careful, detailed, even individual discussion: a general agreement to change the nature of the orchestra and a simultaneous discussion about what form that orchestra might take. That's a living, ongoing creative process, not a union v. management negotiation.  And the musicians should be driving it, not having it imposed on them.

I like that Fleischmann called it a "community of musicians" rather than a community orchestra, whether he really meant it or not, because it sounds self-governing.  The musicians, the staff, the audience, all have a stake in the orchestra.  If they work together, decide together, create something distinctive together, they will succeed together, regardless of the Detroit Symphony's standing in the national orchestra rankings. Part of that success will be their ability to reach and convert new fans to classical music. Another part will simply be the community itself in action. A third part will be great music itself.

Stryker quotes one musician in the story, a French horn player who says he absolutely doesn't want to do anything else for the Detroit Symphony than play concerts to the best of his ability.  I don't know if this is good reporting or not -- does this horn player stand for ALL the orchestra musicians? How representative is he?

Arts Dispatch wrote about this topic previously, and the comment thread to one of those posts was extremely instructive. One of the commenters was Una O'Reardan, a cellist in Detroit who once played for the Oregon Symphony. This is from her comment:
"Our management's threatening and punitive negotiation tactics have done nothing for fostering a respectful and collaborative spirit in dealing with our current fiscal problems. They've gone after a multitude of basic working conditions which ALL of our orchestral colleagues take for granted (such as service conversion, elimination of tenure, and not playing in direct sunlight or excessive heat, among others). If we were to agree to such changes, and set a precedent, it would most definitely affect my talented colleagues in Portland in future contract negotiations."
Stryker's horn player, compared to this account, is a cardboard cut-out -- his position sounds intransigent and self-defeating.  And by contrast, management sounds progressive and practical.

But O'Reardan's comment shows that there's another side to this story. And by that, I don't mean another inflammatory opinion. I mean another useful way of describing the situation. "Collaborative spirit" -- that's clearly not operative in Detroit.  Will they be able to develop it? I have my doubts. Eventually, someone will capitulate to one degree or another, and the orchestra will play again. But the capitulating party will simply be waiting for "next time," when the balance can swing the other way.

These issues are difficult, of course, but they are exacerbated by our inability to behave democratically --  not the voting part, but the discussion part, the time we spend trying to find the best ideas wherever they may occur and then sharpening them in debate and disagreement. We may agree with this approach theoretically, but in practice it rarely happens in American life, at least from my experience. It requires open-mindedness, and that's in very short supply in the culture right now.


Shelley said...

Barry, you have correctly surmised that the musicians have been entirely left out of our management's latest plan to redefine the DSO.

A strategic planning effort concluded in late 2008 that was a fully collaborative process which included Leonard Slatkin. It took more than three years of dedicated effort on everyone’s part to successfully produce a long-range plan that was supported by the entire organization. It was the first time in the organization’s history that the musicians felt they had been involved in a meaningful process.

However, in June of 2009, only seven months later, a presentation was made to our board of directors by Michael Walsh, Jesse Rosen (League of American Orchestras) and others about the need to redefine the orchestra in the wake of the economic downturn. They felt that everything had to be on the table from the ground up, and that while it would be very difficult for the musicians to accept, it would be a “great adventure.” After that presentation, DSO CEO Anne Parsons said, “We’ll have to have a discussion and create a plan.”

I was stunned. Having been a participant in the strategic planning process for last three years I couldn’t believe what I was hearing -- that our strategic plan, not even a year old was essentially being shelved so that the “powers that be” could ram home massive change using the financial crisis as cover.

And I’m sorry to say – that is exactly what is happening. All of the discussions have taken place in back rooms without DSO musicians present and management is hoping that their stick is big enough to force the changes they desire.

So many times in the past the DSO has failed to recognize the long-term implications of its actions. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this is yet another example.

For anyone wishing to read more, I have written a detailed accounting at:

Shelley Heron
Oboist – Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Barry Johnson said...

Shelley, Thank you for filling in some of the history for us. I've taken the liberty of attaching your comment to a post I wrote today on the same subject. It fit perfectly. Thanks again for writing.

Kim Kennedy said...

Don't forget. Most of us already do volunteer and are involved in our communities in many ways. We teach, coach, give master classes. We volunteer at our local schools, churches, nursing homes. We have devoted hundreds of hours collectively, without being paid a penny for fundraising efforts for the DSO over the course of our current contract.
We also practice countless hours to prepare our parts for each week which often comprises of two or more entirely different concerts.
There are ways to encourage us to do even more of this kind of work as this blog very nicely points out. Cutting our pay AND stripping our working conditions to pre 1950's is not the way to do it!

cathycompton said...

No one has yet discussed how complicated our lives are already as symphony orchestra members. Our yearly schedules are so complex, we dare not make any commitment, no matter how small, before checking the printed version of our rehearsal and concert schedule. I dread to think what it would be like if it became more “flexible” as management now claims it needs to be.

In a typical week, we drive to work seven or eight separate times. There are 9 possible start times: 10 am, 10:45, 11, 1:30 pm, 3, 3:30, 7:30, 8 and 8:30, on any day of the week. In the winter we play at Orchestra Hall and in the summer we already play at 7 different places in the Metro area. Most often, we work 6 days in a week, but our “guaranteed” day off, Monday, is sometimes used for special events. If our contract did not include some required weeks with two days off, and some with the two days side by side, we would not have any.

We musicians have to fit our personal lives into this rigid structure of services, which differ from day to day and week to week, and are all required services. Management wants the flexibility to schedule more start times at more venues with different repertoire, but I doubt they will offer us any flexibility to choose which of these events we wish to perform. Right now, if we perform or teach or volunteer elsewhere, we choose when and where we do so, and it is not easy to fit other things in even now.

Regarding sending us even more into the community, I remember when our school concerts were done differently. Currently, the schools bus the students to us, where they hear us play in the wonderful acoustics of Orchestra Hall. Thirty-five years ago, we went to them. We played in school gyms and in tiny auditoriums, with very poor acoustics, and usually wondered why we were there. Even finding the schools was stressful in those days before personal GPS units. I would hold the xeroxed map up to the light and search desperately for the street names I couldn’t seem to find written there. Yes, if we are now sent off to speak or play somewhere in the Detroit Metropolitan area, possibly as far as an hour away from the hall, we may have GPS to help us out, but it will still be stressful every time we have to find somewhere new and some thing new to earn our keep.

How do we make symphony orchestras more relevant to modern Americans? First off all, bring them to us, where we can shine, and do what we do best, that is, play symphonic music where it sounds best, in our own great concert halls.  Please do not send us in small groups hither and yon in a vain search for community support imagined to be lurking just around the next corner.

Catherine Compton
Violist - Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Barry Johnson said...

Kim and Cathy, thank you for your comments.

I'm wondering if the DSO gave you more control over your schedules and appearances and even what you play, if that would help. My hypothesis is that a collaborative creative community takes a lot of work, but once in place, it also can solve a lot of problems. My sense is that the musicians don't trust management's commitment to them -- to schedule their concerts and appearances in such a way to guarantee that they are in condition to play their best, for example, or to have a coherent outreach strategy. And if that's the case, then the first thing to fix is the community itself.

This sounds pretty "granola," but the only way to make substantial changes (and it sounds as thought the economics of the symphony require them at this point) is to involve everyone in figuring out what those changes should be. Shelley said that a long "strategic planning" effort was thrown out before the ideas could be applied, and that since then, things have indeed been top-down. That inevitably leads to lack of trust, doesn't it? If you aren't part of the process?

I posted again on topic above, if you want to take a look.

Javan Kienzle said...

It never ceases to amaze me that people can find money to support what they consider important -- paying up to hundreds of dollars to attend a rock concert, or close to $5 for a cup of trendy coffee, or a couple of hundred dollars for logo'd athletic shoes -- but they cannot find a few extra dollars to pay for uplifting cultural events. It's like paying more for junk food than for truly delicious nutritious food.
Someone once said that if the stars came out only once every thousand years, the entire population of earth would be outside looking up on that night.
Well, if the Detroit Symphony Orchestra came to town only once a year, it would be a talked-about sellout performance.
I know little about the negotiations, but after reading Cathy Compton's comments, all I can think is that the people running things had better Get Real. You can't get milk from a cow that has been starved to death. It appears that management is treating the musicians in one of the country's top orchestras as if they were recalcitrant kindergartners. Our musicians deserve better, Detroit deserves better and an up-and-coming generation of music-lovers deserves better.
I don't know whether the answer is to cut back on appearances until the economy improves, or what. But what is obvious is that until there is a true working partnership between management and the musicians, things will continue to go downhill.
We have such a treasure in the DSO but I get the impression that right now the orchestra is an abused spouse. Maybe management should get off its high horse and come down to earth with the rest of us.
I'm thinking too of the woman who, after the Constitution Convention, asked Ben Franklin, "What kind of a government have you given us?" He replied, "A Republic -- if you can keep it."
The DSO musicians have given us a magnificent orchestra -- if we can keep it.

Barry Johnson said...

Javan, Thanks for you comment, which I think is really interesting. I like the two seemingly contradictory descriptions of the audience, because they're both right, I think. On the one hand, we will flock to a visit by the symphony (or the legend of the appearance of stars in the sky) because we know it will be amazing. On the other hand, we seem not to understand the cause and effect of support for the symphony and those appearances. Hadn't thought of it in that way before.

And yes, the key to me too at this point is the community part, the negotiation part, the "true working partnership" part. That Franklin quote is wonderful and apt.

Anonymous said...

There is a reason that these proposals are top down. If you're going to create a "community of musicians" out of a top-tier symphony orchestra, you have to change the collective bargaining agreement. I've nothing to do with the DSO, but I've been in the room at a similar place when discussing transformational change. As long as representatives from the orchestra were in the room, it was against the rules to discuss any changes to the collective bargaining agreement--and nearly any transformational change would require some. The only place that such discussions can happen is at the contract negotiation table. And as we can all imagine, that is not really a collaborative environment.

So you see the Catch-22? You can't discuss transformational change in a collaborative fashion without negotiating the contract. And you can't bring up transformational proposals in the negotiation because the culture of negotiation is too hostile.

Perhaps such changes (shorter season in the hall, more community engagement) would have been more palatable in a better economic environment where compensation was not also up for serious discussion. But it would surprise me if such ideas were brought up in the "good times" when the model looks like it works just fine.

I also wonder what is worse from the orchestras perspective: the switch from a traditional top-tier orchestra to a "community of musicians," or the permanent reduction in pay? Would anybody from the orchestra care to comment on that? I understand if you aren't allowed to do so.

I also wonder, in reference to the permanent vs. temporary salary cut: do the musicians think the lack of economic support in Detroit will only last a couple years? Or that the strategic plan would have restored economic strength to the organization in two years? If that were true, it would be the greatest strategic plan ever invented in the history of such things.

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